Regaining our Perspective: Raising Awareness of our Precious Animal & Plant Heritage

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Pukeheads and Plethoras of Pathogens

WHAT!??  What's a pukehead?

I'm busy reading "Slaughterhouse" by Gail Eisnitz, which is "the shocking story of the greed, neglect and inhumane treatment inside the U.S. meat industry". The book was first published in 1997, and it would seem rather unlikely that anything much would have changed in the interim. I will not go into graphic descriptions here of the atrocities visited on poor, helpless animals by humans who have lost any semblance of decency or caring for their fellow sentient beings, but I will describe the filth that is allowed to contaminate the meat which is then passed on to the consumer.

The statistics I quote below are all based on the book, and therefore are as at 1997 - I have little doubt they are now at least the same, or possibly even worse.

Did you realise that the CDC (US Centres for Disease Control) estimates between 6.5 and 81 million cases of food poisoning occur each year in the US? One out of 3 Americans suffers a foodborne illness each year, and roughly half a million of those cases require hospitalisation. Deaths from food poisoning quadrupled after deregulation of food, from 2000 in 1984 to 9000 in 1994, the major source of infection being foods of animal origin. As at 1997, the CDC estimated 40 000 cases of E.coli 0157:H7 annually. Since reporting of 0157:H7 poisoning is not mandatory in every US state, this figure is also probably understated, and many doctors and hospitals at the time didn't even know how to test for it.

Poultry has had the reputation of being the leading foodborne carrier of illness, sickening and killing and also causing chronic disabilities like arthritis, but E.coli 0157:H7 naturally generates considerable attention these days.

Hamburgers contain meat from as many as 100 different animals, and one infected animal can cross-contaminate 16 tonnes of beef. The grinding process creates a large surface area for bacterial habitation and hamburger meat is said to be "especially hospitable".

Furthermore, the USDA (US Dept of Agriculture) inspectors effectively had their hands tied when they were prohibited from stopping production lines due to filth contamination on the meat, and were only permitted to inspect for "pathogens" on carcasses whizzing by at a phenomenal rate per minute - an impossible task. Besides, the USDA did not want to adopt rapid in-situ microbial testing in abbatoirs, and were rather more complicit with big meat producers in condoning higher production rates.

Technological innovation in the 1970's made high volume poultry slaughter possible (USDA- approved), resulting in a dramatic increase in contaminated birds. Faecal contamination on skin and feathers gets inhaled by live birds in the scald tank (they go in there alive), and hot water opens the pores, allowing pathogens to enter. The defeathering machines' pounding creates an aerosol of faecal-contaminated water which is beaten into the birds. Water in the chill tanks has been named "faecal soup" due to all the filth and bacteria in them. Clean birds entering the tank (as all birds will) are assured of cross-contamination. And further contamination occurs when the automatic evisceration machines rip open intestines, spilling faecal material into the birds' body cavities. Prior to 1978, inspectors had condemned any bird with faecal contamination inside the body cavity. After 1978, faeces were reclassified from "dangerous contaminant" to (wait for it) "cosmetic blemish"! Inspectors condemned fewer birds and consumers ate the rest.

The US stayed with water chilling rather than moving to air chilling, because federal regulations permitted each carcass to soak up to 8% extra water (by 1997) - water that the consumer was paying for per kilo in the supermarket. As Gail Eisnitz put it so delicately "this enables the industry to sell hundreds of millions of gallons of germ-filled water at poultry meat prices". As USDA microbiologist Gerald Kuester put it "there are fifty points during processing where cross contamination can occur. At the end of the line, the birds are no cleaner than if they'd been dipped in a toilet".

(Former) Purdue worker Donna Bazemore's testimony to congress, noted that ;

"The floors are covered with grease, fat, sand and roaches. Some of the flying roaches were huge - up to 4 to 5 inches long. There are flies all around, including big blowflies. Employees are constantly chewing and spitting out snuff and tobacco on the floor. There is so much faecal contamination on the floor from chickens, that it kept getting into one worker's boots and burnt his feet so badly his toenails had to be amputated. The company won't allow workers to leave the line when they have to go to the bathroom....sometimes they have to relieve themselves on the floor. After they are hung, birds sometimes fall off into the drain that runs down the middle of the line. This is where roaches, intestines, diseased parts, faecal contamination and blood are washed down. Workers get sick to their stomachs into the drain - which is a lot less sanitary than anybody's toilet. The Perdue supervisors told us to take the fallen chickens out of the drain and send them back down the line."

Another worker noted :  "I've seen birds fall on the floor and foremen tell workers to put them back on the line without washing. And I know we didn't condemn those that fell on the floor and were heavily soiled. I've seen birds with cancerous tumours come through regularly, sometimes all day long. While on quality control, I'd pull off those I saw, but I couldn't possibly catch them all. Right after I put them in the condemn barrel, the foremen would have the workers hang them back on the line."

One of the USDA inspectors noted that the leadership at the USDA changed the standards so that "modern means dirty". "We used to stop production for hours if necessary to get the facility cleaned up. By the time I left, anyone who tried to do that would have to find another job.

Bazemore noted in a later testimony "workers keep finding rats and fat cockroaches in the chill tanks where chickens soak together - both the rats and their droppings. Women still have to keep on relieving themselves on the floor because there are not enough bathroom breaks. Birds still fall on the floor and get put back on the line. Employees are in trouble if they don't try to slip the birds back in. Gall birds (i.e. with ruptured gall bladders) keep going out despite green pus in their intestines that is intensely painful when it gets in workers eyes. Diseased birds still go out although they are so sick that mucous backs up into their lungs."

An employee at a third chicken plant said "I personally have seen rotten meat - you can tell by the odour. This rotten meat is mixed with fresh meat and sold for baby food. You can see the worms inside the meat." Another worker said  "in the department where chicken bones were ground up and processed into chicken franks and bologna, almost continuously the bones had an awful foul odour. Sometimes they came from other plants and had been sitting for days. Often there were maggots on them. These bones were never cleaned off and so the maggots were ground up with everything else and remained in the final product."

One of the earliest studies conducted at a model poultry operation in Puerto Rico in 1987 put the number of contaminated birds coming out of the chill tank at 76%. USDA studies in 1992 put contamination at 58% before going into the chill tank, and 72% after the communal bath. The USDA forced the resignation of the microbiologist who wanted to publish these findings, for not agreeing to a "sanitised version" of the report.

After 6 different "poultry processing improvements", salmonella was still contaminating 48% of the birds coming out of the chill tanks. Campylobacter (twice as frequent as salmonella) is now the number one cause of gastroenteritis in the US, causing hundreds of deaths annually. In 1991, a USDA microbiologist found the bacteria present in 98% of store-bought chickens. Food Safety Review (a USDA publication) reported that "heavily contaminated flocks may result in a contamination rate of 100% for finished products". Campylobacter was found on 100% of chickens coming out of chill tanks.  

That's the hors doeuvre. Let's move on to cows, which is where the title of this blog becomes relevant. Beef? Same story as chickens.

"Inspectors who have attempted to stop the production line have been reprimanded, re-assigned, physically attacked by plant employees, and then disciplined for being in fights, had their performance appraisals lowered, been placed under criminal investigation, fired, or subjected to enough retaliation to 'neutralise them'."

While epidemiologists estimate that one speck of faeces can contain millions of E.coli 0157:H7 microbes and that one to 10 microbes can kill a child, USDA bureaucrats were counting how many visible smears of cow faeces they would overlook on each animal. To create an illusion of Federal oversight, inspectors were authorised to reinspect 6 sides of beef (3 cows) out of 3200 cattle per shift. That's 3/10 of 1 percent of the meat leaving the plant being inspected - with 100% of the meat stamped "US Inspected and Passed".

Veterinarians told inspectors "you're not shit inspectors anymore - you're pathology inspectors only". But nobody else was assigned the task of being a "shit inspector". Faecal contamination came down the line  - up to 1 foot smears - as well as flukes (liver parasites), grubs (wormlike fly larvae that burrow into the cow's skin and work their way through the body), abscesses (encapsulated infections filled with pus), hide, hair  and ingesta (partially digested food found in the stomach or aesophagus).

Company managers ordered employees to cut open abscesses and let them drain on healthy portions of meat, instead of trimming off infected areas. Plant employees report buying a pre-cooked roast and cutting into a healthy abscess. Manure, hair, hide, metal and chewing tobacco regularly contaminate products that used to be clean. Cactus thorns stay in beef tongues because the lines are moving too fast for workers to remove them. Cows are slaughtered that have been dead on arrival, some so long they are ice cold. Plant employees who think inspectors aren't looking, pull out "retain tags" (retain carcass for further inspection) and ship these out without trimming off open pus-filled abscesses. Inedible meat products full of disease are mixed with edible products. One firm shipped out meat so old, it was green when trimmed.

A Nebraska inspector smuggled head meat out of a plant, to run an unauthorised check. He found 24% of the heads reaching the head boning table for boxing, to be contaminated with hair, dirt, hide and ingesta. The type of heads getting through , included those known in the industry as "pukeheads" are so filled with partially digested food that contamination oozes into the outer surfaces of the head and cross-contaminates others. Head meat usually winds up in burgers.

Every day, carcasses fall on the floor and are not trimmed before the company puts them back on the line. Floors are filthy, covered with blood, grease, faeces, pus from abscesses and mud. A lot gets embedded into the meat from high-pressure carcass sprays. There are pools of urine on the viscera table that regularly contacts products.... the drains are so often stopped-up, filthy water splashes on the carcasses even if they don't fall off the rail. "

I can sense the South Africans (at least) getting a little smug and comfortable - since we are talking about a dysfunctional US industry hell-bent on supersonic production speeds and devil take the hindmost. But this is South Africa and things are different here.  The problem with this thinking is we don't know. We have no well -established food activists writing about local conditions and there are few if any reports about conditions in local abbatoirs or private processing plants. The South African meat industry, like many other things South African, is very opaque.  What we do know is that we live in a competitive world and that international trade barriers have come down, so it's a fair bet that production line speeds here receive as much emphasis as they do in the USA. There may also be American-owned production plants in this country. Do we observe proper health protocols, or do we pay lip-service to consumer health? Will the meat packing plants give us an honest answer if anyone asked? I'm not taking any bets - remember we seem to leap on anything American with cries of joy, believing it to be superior to our own. This is also possibly true of meat production methods - and certainly meats are imported into our country. From whence do they come?

Isn't it a shame that it's only the efforts of a small number of very dedicated activists who are prepared to take on the mega- food producers and strive to get them to behave in a civilized humane manner, as well as conduct their affairs in a hygienic way? It should be human nature to be humane and clean, but it's not.

If we weren't vegetarians before starting to read this book, we'd certainly be so by now. It makes no sense to be playing Russian roulette at the dinner table. Which reminds me - it's nearly supper time.

Whatever you're eating tonight - beef, lamb, pork, chicken, or even maybe burgers or chicken or pork frankfurters - enjoy it and savour each mouthful. It may be your last. Your next of kin are, sadly, unlikely to prevail against the meat industry in bringing a civil suit - even if they can prove it was the meat that did the dirty deed.

(Acknowledgements for most of the material for this blog, with thanks : Gail Eisnitz).

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